Monthly Archives: January 2011

Beware the Yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod

A couple of days ago my girlfriend and I were talking about the problem of evil. I think I had showed her a post over at Common Sense Atheism that was simply a picture of the stereotypical god figure sitting on a couch with popcorn and soda while watching “on TV” the image of a child starving to death in (I assume) Africa. Now my girlfriend is not religious, but was brought up with nomial Catholicism, having grown up and spent most of her formative years in Italy. She mentioned how god must have horrible priorities if he decided to feed a few thousand people with fish back in 33 CE when there's an entire world of people starving and dying. “You can tell what kind of god he is” she recounted.
What she was referring to, of course, was the feeding of the multitude episode(s) in the Synoptic Gospels. While her point was correct, the example that she used was not.
Mark has two “miraculous” feeding scenes; one at 6.30-44 and the other at 8.1-9. Now it should be noted that Mark has actually set up these two scenes and a scene following it a bit. The first four disciples that Jesus calls (Simon [Peter], Andrew, James, and John) are all fishermen. Mark has Jesus say something along the lines of “You guys are fishermen eh? Well how about I make you fishers… of men! Damn that's an awesome pun.” when he first meets them. The would be disciples drop their nets immediately – abandoning their families – and follow him.
Amazing what a well timed pun can do. 
Ok now let's look at the first feeding, Mk 6.30-44:
30 The apostles gathered around Jesus and reported to him all they had done and taught.
31 Then, because so many people were coming and going that they did not even have a chance to eat, he said to them, “Come with me by yourselves to a quiet place and get some rest.”

32 So they went away by themselves in a boat to a solitary place.
33 But many who saw them leaving recognized them and ran on foot from all the towns and got there ahead of them.
34 When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. So he began teaching them many things.

35 By this time it was late in the day, so his disciples came to him. “This is a remote place,” they said, “and it's already very late.
36 Send the people away so they can go to the surrounding countryside and villages and buy themselves something to eat.”

37 But he answered, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “That would take eight months of a man's wages[e]! Are we to go and spend that much on bread and give it to them to eat?”
38 “How many loaves do you have?” he asked. “Go and see.” When they found out, they said, “Five—and two fish.”
39 Then Jesus directed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass.
40 So they sat down in groups of hundreds and fifties.
41 Taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he gave thanks and broke the loaves. Then he gave them to his disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all.
42 They all ate and were satisfied,
43 and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces of bread and fish.
44 The number of the men who had eaten was five thousand.
And here is the second feeding, Mk 8.1-9:
1 During those days another large crowd gathered. Since they had nothing to eat, Jesus called his disciples to him and said,
2 “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.
3 If I send them home hungry, they will collapse on the way, because some of them have come a long distance.”

4 His disciples answered, “But where in this remote place can anyone get enough bread to feed them?”
5 “How many loaves do you have?” Jesus asked. “Seven,” they replied.
6 He told the crowd to sit down on the ground. When he had taken the seven loaves and given thanks, he broke them and gave them to his disciples to set before the people, and they did so.
7 They had a few small fish as well; he gave thanks for them also and told the disciples to distribute them.
8 The people ate and were satisfied. Afterward the disciples picked up seven basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over.
9 About four thousand men were present.
Right before the first feeding, the disciples had just been sent out into the world to preach about the good news and coming kingdom of god. Notice here that this is the last appearance of fish in the narrative, and I think it has a specific purpose. I'll say it in another way: The only appearance of fish in Mark is when Jesus picks his first two groups of disciples and at these two feedings.
After this feeding, we get the famous walking on water pericope where the disciples are trying to get to the “other” side of the lake (they actually make a semicircle and end up where they started, but Mark's concern isn't accurate geography…). Jesus then heals a non-Jewish woman and some dude who is mute. Then we get to the second feeding.
Now here's what I think the purpose of these two feedings are. Notice in the first one, right after Jesus' disciples have finished evangelizing, there are two fish. And then at the end the disciples pick up twelve baskets of remains. They then “travel” to “another” side of the river where Jesus heals some non-Jews. After these healings, there are a bunch of small fish; the remains are seven baskets. The most important part of all of this is what Jesus says after being confronted by the Pharisees asking for a sign:
Beware the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.
Jesus' disciples are like “Oh… it's because we have no bread…”. Jesus uses his super-hearing to listen in on what his disciples are saying and replies “You guys are dumb! Come on now, didn't you see the first feeding where there was twelve baskets left over? And the second feeding where there was seven? Don't tell me you don't get it. Jesus Christ – you guys are dumb as rocks!” (because we all know that Jesus yelled his own name whenever he was exasperated).
Of course, Jesus isn't talking about actual yeast when he talks about the Pharisees or Herod. The Pharisees are the ones preaching a different message from Jesus to their fellow Jews and possible non-Jewish converts. So in essense, Jesus was “feeding” the people in his feedings, but it was spiritual food. It was his own preaching.
The two fish (ιχθυας, which is actually the skin or “husk” of the fish) represent the two kingdoms of Israel and Judah. They can also represent the two groups of disciples that Jesus first “caught”: Simon and Andrew, and James and John. The twelve that were left over represented the twelve tribes of I&J. In the second feeding, the little fish (ιχθυδια) represent every other kingdom. The seven baskets left over represent Rome (non-Jews), as there are seven hills that represeted the Roman empire.
But of course, as my girlfriend would more intimitely know, there are now nine hills of Rome.
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Posted by on January 25, 2011 in early Christianity


The Traditional Jesus

This is not my wording, but I don't think I can express it better than “spin” did.
Just on the subject of the traditional Jesus, the notion of tradition is very important to the position, hence the name, for want of better. The position revolves around the problems of traditions and how one can–if at all–derive any historical information from traditions. The stupidity of probabilities, modern common sense, or application of rules for extracting history from them brings derisive laughter from me. It's like expecting to send a meteor into the sun and be able to say where any of its parts are at any given time. Few data that enter a tradition will retain any history. One may point to a particular event, such as the census in Luke, and claim that that supplies a historical date, and, by itself, it does, but how is that date relates to the tradition is a mystery. It's a terminus a quo for the datum attached to that particular date, but how does it relate to the rest of the tradition? When did the tradition start and when did the datum enter the tradition? Pilate for example implies a date range, but when did Pilate get absorbed into the tradition? The tradition is unable to tell you, though of course it couldn't be before Pilate. At what stage was the tradition when Pilate entered it? The tradition doesn't say. We are slightly fortunate because we have a few visions of part of the tradition in the various gospels. There is the possibility of setting up some sort of relative chronology of some of the elements in the tradition.
The Jesus of this view is–at the moment–unreachable and he always may be. We have no way in and the tradition cannot help. Imagine that the tradition is an avalanche that we can see at one moment of its downhill course. From your position all you can see is the event front. What it has absorbed and is dragging with it is behind that event front. The tradition, as far as we can see, is the event front in that moment. Paul may have been the prime mover of the event, but there is no way to be sure, as things stand. The tradition itself keeps its secrets jealously.
This is part of what is behind the notion of traditional.
I think this makes me a “believer” in the traditional Jesus. It is a belief in belief in some ways: I believe that the early Christians believed in some sort of tradition(s) about Jesus. But tradition itself does not permit us to differentiate between what is “real” and what is “not”. It is probably a more nuanced position than a simply “Agnostic Jesus” position. It actually explains the agnosticism. That's why I think more scholars should be honest and preface their “facts” about Jesus with “tradition” statements.
It was a tradition that Jesus was crucified. Was Jesus actually crucified? Who knows; we only have what the tradition says. Was Jesus a wandering preacher? We have one tradition (the gospels) where this is the case. We have another tradition (Paul) where it is not. 
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Posted by on January 13, 2011 in early Christianity, historical jesus, historicity, historiography, history, jesus myth


Why Faith Is Not A Virtue

Let’s look at a thought experiment to see what the nature of faith is.

Say you are in a steady relationship with a significant other. There have been the usual ups and downs of a relationship, but overall things are going pretty good. Let’s say, however, that one day you do the one thing that your significant other would possibly break up with you over. What do you do? Let’s say there’s no chance of them ever finding out. What now? Do you risk it and tell them, being honest? Or do you keep it from them, so that they remain faithful to you?

I admit this is a pretty tough decision. But what is underlying this is whether you simply want to possess the person, or if you love and respect them.

Actually, don’t even answer the question. Your particular character isn’t what I’m trying to point out here. What I would like to know is: What would a person who values [your] faith over everything else do in this situation? What will they do necessarily? That’s right; they would have no second guesses about lying to you to maintain your faith in them.

Now, what if there is no second party involed. No significant other. What if it is just you confronted with a decision to face something that might make you lose faith in someone/something or to ignore that thing? What would a person who values faith do? That’s right. They would have no qualms about lying to themselves to maintain their faith.

So what exactly is the difference between faith and self-deception? I don’t think there is any difference. If a person cares more about faith than honesty (or “the truth”) then any other option is necessarily some form of deception.

Hope vs. Faith

What about hope? Isn’t that the same thing as faith? Wouldn’t that mean that hope is also self-deception? Let’s look at another thought experiment to see if there is a subtle difference between the two.

You have just taken a math test. You’re not sure if you did well or did poorly. When you get back to your dorm, your roommate asks you how you did. How do you respond?

“I hope I did well on the test”. This, to me, seems like approaching the uncertainty about the math test from a point of humility. It acknowledges the doubt inherent in your uncertainty on the math test. It fully embraces the uncertainty. As in, “I hope I did well on the test, but I might not have”.

“I have faith I did well on the test”. This, to me, seems like approaching the uncertainty about the math test from a point of… well, no uncertainty at all. From an arrogant perspective; a perspective of [self] deception about the state of uncertainty you earlier had about the math test. 

Faith vs. Trust

If faith is such a negative virtue to me, how do I go about navigating the world and maintaining interpersonal relationships? The key difference is between faith and trust. Who are some of the people in your life that you can say that you trust? Chances are, these are people that you have known for a long time, and know their character very well. In essense, this sort of trust is an inductive inference.

Induction, in logic, is making a prediction about future behavior based on past behavior. Your buddy Joe has always been a person of integrity the entire four years that you’ve known him, so you can trust him to maintain his integrity the next time it is put to the test. He almost certainly will hold on to your prized collection of Star Wars die-cast collectibles while your apartment is being fumigated.

In essense, you can think of induction as a statistical argument. If Beth has gotten hammered 89% of the times that you two have went to the bar, the chances are the next time she goes to the bar with you she will get hammered. You can trust her to get completely wasted and have to carry her home.

Faith vs. Doubt

Some have said that faith seeks understanding. But after looking into the above thought experiments, I cannot see how this can be the case. Doubt, on the other hand – by its very nature – seeks understanding. Look at how all of our “knowledge seeking” statements begin: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These words are all “doubt” words. They are “uncertainty” words. “Question” words. Without these words, we would have no straightforward means of discovering knowledge about the world we live in.

Every single modern convenience is built on the foundation of doubt. This is because every single modern convenience follows from some sort of rigorous methodology, which only functions because of doubt. This is why there are peer-reviews, double blind studies, external controls, independent verification, etc. They are all predicated on the concept of doubt.

The entire school system is built on doubt. This is why we take tests. This is why we defend theses. We don’t get end of year exams because our professors have faith in us, we get end of year exams because of the concept of doubt. We don’t stand in front of boards and present an oral defense of our thesis because of faith. It is presented under the pretense of doubt.

We’ve been conditioned to think of doubt as a negative virtue. But doubt is the only reason why we even know anything to a high degree of certainty. Well, doubting and then testing; but we would never test something unless we doubted it first. Conversely, we’ve been conditioned to think of faith as an across the board positive virtue. But it isn’t. From the starting point of faith, we have no reason whatsoever to test something. This is because test implies doubting.

If I have faith that it is 9:31am, does this mean that I actually know what time it is? Would this faith prompt me to actually check the time? Of course not; actually checking the time implies doubt on my part.

“Embracing uncertainty is one of science’s great strengths–it allows new information to modulate judgments and correct mistaken beliefs. The skill is in distinguishing between what is certain and what isn’t (or at least what lies closer to one end or the other of that spectrum). Editorial, SCIENCE NEWS Dece. 4, 2010

A system built on doubt is a system that encourages self-correction. What system of self-correction is there in one predicated on faith? Self-correction itself implies doubt; I do not see how any faith system can self-correct without outside influence.

The Role Of Faith

It seems as though faith really only has currency in religious discussions. But why even allow it currency there? Liberal religionists try to distance themselves from their more fundamentalist or conservative bretheren. But would this even be necessary if faith was not seen as a virtue? Liberal religionists who recognize that faith is a virtue are the springboard for the fundementalists. “See?”, say the fundamentalists, “Faith is a virtue, and I am exercising my virtuousness just like you are”. It is only a difference in scale.

It seems the easiest way to rob the extremists of their power would be to remove the idea that faith has some sort of inherent value. Unfortunately, it seems as though even the most liberal religionists believe the same – so they would in effect be removing their only reasons for believing. Faith is the common thread between the liberal and fundamentalist religionist.

As long as faith is seen as a virtue, we can continue to encounter people who think that faith based actions such as 9/11 are virtuous.

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Posted by on January 12, 2011 in faith, self-deception


Quote of the day, by Stephen Colbert

“Like all great theologies, Bill O'Reilly's can be boiled down to one sentence: there must be a God, because I don't know how things work”
And this is to be my first post of 2011!
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Posted by on January 7, 2011 in apologetics, Funny

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